Mitt Romney: A Known Unknown
Finding the perfect middle ground between saying too much and looking like you’ve something to hide: From the start of the campaign, this has been one of Mitt Romney’s most important tasks. Even this year, when both Presidential candidates are trying to win the White House by stoking the enthusiasm their Party’s base, Romney can’t afford to present an unvarnished conservative platform. But with a history as chequered by fits of moderation — or even liberalism — as Romney’s is, he also cannot survive the perception among the diehards that he’s a RINO. For at least the past year-and-a-half, he’s been inching along this tightrope.
It’s worked OK thus far. As has been the case for months now, the latest horse race polls find the former Massachusetts Governor all but tied with the President. In the vital swing states, the public’s favor is similarly divided, with the President holding a narrow advantage. But if you’re a Romney supporter, there are some disconcerting signs. For one thing, Republican voters are losing enthusiasm for November, and an “enthusiasm gap” that for the past two years tilted in the Republicans’ favor may be beginning to benefit Democrats. Within the context of a neck-and-neck race, voter enthusiasm is perhaps the most important metric prognosticators have at their disposal. An electorate anything less than fired up and ready to go bodes ill for the GOP.
Prominent Republicans in the media have responded by demanding Romney more forcefully defend and articulate Republican policies. Their thinking is well summed-up by The Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol, who recently wrote:
[V]oters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy. He can “speak about” how bad the economy is all he wants—though Americans are already well aware of the economy’s problems—but doesn’t the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes.
As partisans are wont to do, Kristol, Murdoch, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, and others mistake their own reflections for the faces of the voting public — or at least a winning coalition thereof. Jonathan Chait rightly noted last week how mistaken Romney would be if he followed their advice and continued to campaign as if he were vying for his Party’s nomination:
Conservatives say they want Romney to change his staff or alter his campaign tactics. But what they really want is a different candidate and a different electorate. They want to believe that the American people are hungering for detailed endorsements of Republican plans to cut entitlement spending and taxes for the rich and launch a philosophical assault on the welfare state. But that’s not what the public wants and Romney knows it.
Yet although Romney’s correct to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty — or even the broad particulars — when it comes to Republican ideas, his strategy of being The Man Whose Policy Recommendations Weren’t There is still giving him problems. Even if Kristol et al are wrong about what Romney should do, their criticism is a response to a real and enduring problem with candidate Romney: Voters can’t get a handle on who he is, what he believes. In fact, according to a fascinating profile of the Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, by Robert Draper, many voters still don’t even know what Romney looks like:
[Focus group] voters had almost no sense of Obama’s opponent. While conducting a different focus group — this one with non-college-educated Milwaukee voters on the eve of Wisconsin’s April 3 primary — Burton and Sweeney were surprised to learn that even after Romney had spent months campaigning, many in the group could not recognize his face, much less characterize his positions. Compounding the Republican nominee’s strangely persistent obscurity is that, as Garin told me, “Romney is not a natural politician in the sense of embracing opportunities to talk about himself.”
Draper’s piece gets into this in greater detail, but the one result of Romney’s ill-defined image is an opportunity for Democrats to define the candidate before he’s able to do so himself. And since Romney is at once so hesitant to discuss policy but so willing to cite his experience at Bain Capital, Democrats are expending great sums of time and money to present Bain in the worst light possible. This Priorities USA ad, “Stage,” is my favorite example of the campaign so far. In it, the machinations of shadowy Bain executives — the leader of whom we’re led to believe is Romney — are conflated with larger and widespread fears of powerless, helplessness, and even death. Romney is the faceless beneficiary of inhuman, global processes through which regular people are used up and thrown away for no clear purpose and with no obvious remedy.
Taking on an almost existential menace, Romney becomes the post-industrial boogie man:
New polling indicates the attack is having its desired effect, bringing wayward Democrats back into the fold — and out of Romney’s arms:
In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of swing states, an overwhelming majority of voters remember seeing campaign ads over the past month; most voters in other states say they haven’t. In the battlegrounds, one in 12 say the commercials have changed their minds about President Obama or Republican Mitt Romney — a difference on the margins, but one that could prove crucial in a close race.
At this point, Obama is the clear winner in the ad wars. Among swing-state voters who say the ads have changed their minds about a candidate, rather than just confirmed what they already thought, 76% now support the president, vs. 16% favoring Romney. […]
To be sure, Obama’s ads have done more to win back Democrats than to win over independents or Republicans: Thirteen percent of Democrats say their minds have been changed by ads, compared with 9% of independents and 3% of Republicans.
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse calls the findings unsurprising. “It is expected to find that more voters say their views have changed about Mitt Romney; they simply don’t know him all that well,” he says. “On the other hand, there are few voters who are going to say their views have changed about President Obama. They know him pretty damned well.”
Forgive the cliché, but the thing about first impressions is that you only get to make ’em once. Newhouse’s take may be somewhat reassuring spin, but it’s an explanation of the problem rather than an answer to it. Voters will make up their minds about Romney on their own schedule; they won’t wait around for the Republican nominee to send them a FAQ. And if the Democrats’ two-pronged critique of Romney’s character — his work at Bain on the one hand, his overseas financial holdings on the other — isn’t countered with equal force and determination by Republicans, the electorate may decide it’s heard just about enough from Mitt Romney before the Party Convention gives him a chance to offer a formal introduction.